Attention principals: use your flexibility
The Shanker Institute's Matt Di Carlo had a great post last week breaking down a recent study by economist Brian Jacob on how principals fire (or don't fire) teachers in Chicago Public Schools. The news that firings correlate with lower effectiveness is nice to hear. But the headline is that, given more flexibility, principals still mostly don't fire anybody:
Given more flexibility, principals still mostly don't fire anybody.
Jacob found that, despite the new policy allowing principals to dismiss probationary teachers at will, a rather high proportion of them didn’t do so. During each year between 2004-05 and 2006-07, principals in around 30-40 percent of Chicago schools chose not to dismiss a single probationary teacher. Further, this phenomenon was not at all limited to “high-performing” and/or low-poverty schools, where one might expect to find a stable, well-trained teaching force. For instance, in 2005, 35 percent of the “lowest-performing” schools (the bottom 25 percent) chose not to dismiss any probationary teachers, as compared with 54 percent of the school with the highest absolute achievement levels (the proportions were similar when school performance was measured in terms of value-added).
In other words, when principals were given free rein to fire for any reason, with virtually no documentation or effort, a significant proportion chose not to use this power even once.
This is quite a challenge to those who believe union obstructionism or onerous due process are the primary obstacles to moving poor teachers out of the profession. Those are worthwhile things to fight, where they are truly an impediment to improving the work force, but given the chance, principals still seem to prefer retaining ineffective staff.
Why? As Matt notes, there are a lot of plausible explanations. If I had to guess, I'd say the professional culture in most public schools still sees firing as an extreme response to bad performance, instead preferring endless remediation. The supply of decent job candidates is probably not up to demand in CPS, either, meaning the labor market is a barrier to implementing better policies around teacher performance.
The study's results also suggest to me that there's a leadership gap at the building level. Urban superintendents answer for poor performance with their jobs. Average tenure is low and has trended downward in recent decades. But how far down does the accountability (and leadership development) go? How many principals get meaningful training in management, and how many of them lose their own jobs if they keep hiring the same cohort of underperforming teachers?
As always, good policy only sets districts up for the next step: implementation. The natural experiment in Chicago shows how much further we have to go to improve teacher quality—and illustrates that (very) local leadership is key to success.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.
May 23, 2013